Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith

Portrait of Dr. Smith from <a href = ",scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21316999360001021"><i>Mayors of Boston</i></a>, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Portrait of Dr. Smith from Mayors of Boston, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

INFORMATION WANTED 9 February 1856  OF PHILIP SHANAHAN, who left the parish of Inley, co Limerick, Aug 25th, ’51, and when last heard from was in Rappahannock co, Va. His sister Mary, at Rainsford Island, wishes to know of his whereabouts. Direct to A G Goodwin, 59 Long Wharf Boston. (Harris 1993, 437)

The 19th century brought waves of Irish immigrants to the United States.  In the process families and friends, such as the brother and sister pair seen above in an information wanted ad from the Boston Pilot newspaper, were often separated.  Though limited information can be found on Phillip and Mary Shanahan, their story, similar to many others, enlightens us on patterns of Irish immigration and in turn the history of our own country.  Rainsford Island, located in Boston Harbor, is the location given as Mary Shanahan’s home. Rainsford Island played a major role in Boston history as an early quarantine station and hospital for passengers of ships arriving in the harbor. While researching Rainsford Island, Doctor James Van Crowninshield Smith’s name made regular appearances, and holds significant interest to us here at the Burns Library.

Dr. Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith (1800-1879), over the course of his life was incredibly active; he was a professor, editor, author, health officer, and mayor of Boston during his lengthy professional career (New York Times 1879).  Smith was born in Conway, N.H., July 20, 1800, and graduated from Brown University in 1818 (New York Times 1879). Dr. J. V. C. Smith received his M.D. from Williams College, and studied surgery under Dr. William Ingalls, an eminent surgeon of Boston (Rainville 1914).  In 1825 while in Boston, the center of medical science in New England, he became the editor of the Medical Intelligencer, a post which he held with distinction for more than 20 years (New York Times 1879).  In 1826 he was made Health Officer of the port of Boston, a position he served on Rainsford Island until 1849. When he retired from active duty, he spent several years traveling the Middle East. On his return, in 1854, he was elected Mayor of Boston and served until 1855. He finally retired in 1870 and moved to New York City with his wife to be near his son also a medical practitioner (New York Times 1879).

In the midst of his professional career, Dr. Smith also found time to write prolifically on a diverse number of topics.  Some of his medical texts include a text-book of anatomy, a book on women’s health, and a book on the anatomy and physiology of the eye.  Some of his non-medical texts include a Natural history of fish found in Massachusetts, a book on gold and silver, and an essay on the practicability of cultivating the honey bee.   He also wrote three books of travel, one on Palestine, another on Egypt, and a third on Turkey and the Turks (New York Times 1879).

The Burns Library is home to several of Dr. Smith’s literary works and orations during, and prior to, his time serving as mayor for the city of Boston.  One of the orations found in the Burns Library was given to the city of Boston on July 4th while he was serving as Health Officer of the port of Boston.  An Oration, Delivered before the Inhabitants of South Boston on Saturday, July 4, 1835, the Fifty-ninth Anniversary of the American Independence begins with the reminder that those in attendance are gathered to celebrate the “Birth-Day of Political Freedom—the hollowed Festival of Patriots” (Smith 1835, 3).  Dr. Smith describes the historic events that lead up to the formation of Boston with the incorporation of Dorchester (Smith 1835, 16-20) and also memorializes the events which occurred in Boston during the American Revolution (Smith 1835, 20-41). The oration concludes by warning the citizens that they must not become complacent and the exhortation to keep alive and acknowledge the principles of liberty and equality, to teach the youth, so all that was gained by the patriots of Boston during the revolutionary war was not for naught (Smith 1835, 44).

Woodcut print of a tattooed girl from <a href = ",scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21349781930001021".<i>Pilgrimage to Egypt</i></a> by J.V.C. Smith, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Woodcut print of a tattooed girl from Pilgrimage to Egypt by J.V.C. Smith, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

After retiring from his position at Rainsford Island Dr. Smith traveled to the Middle East; during these tours he kept detailed diaries.  Upon returning back to the states he compiled these diaries into books.  A Pilgrimage to Egypt, published in 1852, is here at the Burns Library.  In A Pilgrimage to Egypt, Dr. Smith covers a diverse number of topics ranging from architecture, to antiques for sale, to ethnographic accounts of the locals.  One particularly interesting account of the locals that is accompanied by a wood cut print, describes the physical appearance of a woman from a bazaar along the lower Nile who was covered by tattoos (Smith 1852, 51-52).  Dr. Smith describes the town as being made out of mud brick, the bazaar a short dirty street covered by old mats and brush to keep it shaded from the sunlight. Sellers sat cross-legged by their goods smoking while awaiting customers. The women of the town were either carrying jugs of water or lounging by their round huts. They wore a single loose fitting robe of blue and their faces, arms, hands, and feet were covered in tattoos (Smith 1852, 52).

Although we may never know the outcome of Mary Shanahan and her search for her brother Philip, this ad and others like it still provide important information on our nation’s past. On a closer look their motives for immigration and arrival locations are connected to people and places that can be found in a paper trail here at the Burns Library.  In reading Dr. Smith’s July 4th oration, one is struck by the pride in which he holds America as the land of freedom and equality, and the great importance of keeping America this way.  As the Health Officer of Boston’s port, Dr. Smith would have closely interacted with the waves of immigrants coming to America, all seeking the same freedom and equality which he cherished dearly.

If you would like to explore other volumes by Dr. Smith in the Burns Library’s Boston Collection, then please email or call the Burns Library at or (617)-552-4861.

  • Rachel Brody, Student Assistant to Kathleen Williams, Irish Studies Librarian & MA Student in the Department of History

Works Consulted

Anonymous. “OTHER DEATHS.” New York Times (1857-1922), Aug 22, 1879.

Harris, Ruth-Ann M., and O’Keeffe B. Erner, eds. The Search for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot. Vol. III. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1993.

Rainville, Susan, Rainville, Leo, Donor, State Street Trust Company, and Walton Advertising Printing Company. Mayors of Boston: An Illustrated Epitome of Who the Mayors Have Been and What They Have Done. State Street Trust Company (Boston, Mass.) (Series); No. 8. Boston: Printed for the State Street Trust, 1914.

Smith, Jerome Van Crowninshield. An Oration, Delivered before the Inhabitants of South Boston, on Saturday, July 4, 1835, the Fifty-ninth Anniversary of American Independence. Boston: Russell, Diorne and, 1835.

A Pilgrimage to Egypt. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1852.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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